Essilor of America operates the largest wholesale laboratory network in the U.S. The network, which consists of about 100 labs, was built through the acquisition of independent labs and through organic growth.

To preserve the type of personalized customer service that characterizes the best independent labs, Essilor uses a systematic approach to training customer service representatives and organizes them into small work units called “pods.” This approach, when combined with modernized manufacturing and distribution methods, results in what Sherianne James, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of customer experience, calls “customer intimacy.”

VM’s Andrew Karp spoke to James about the training and protocols Essilor has developed that allows the company to achieve and maintain a balance of personal service and efficiency. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

VM: Do you see customer service expectations changing for Essilor labs. If so, what’s changing and how is Essilor responding?

Sherianne James:
The first thing a doctor will say is they want their job on time and they want it right the first time. That seems pretty basic and fundamental but it’s not always the case. One of the challenges, industrywide, is the unpredictability of supply and demand in the context of COVID, and the complexity of shopping and safety—it’s been harder.

Sherianne James
Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of Customer Experience Essilor of America

One of the things that is a dynamic of our industry is that the service is not just dependent on the lab, it’s dependent on the doctor. The majority of orders in the independent industry are ‘frame-to-come.’ The doctor places an order, but it’s still dependent on when they send in that frame. Some do it right away, and others don’t. So a lot of times an order delay is actually because of a frame delay. For example, an order might be delayed because maybe you put in a prescription that technically is incongruent with the frame. Those things cause delays.

One of the things we have come back to in terms of the fundamental way we support our doctors is what we refer to as ‘customer intimacy.’ And to be frank, it actually came out of a pendulum swing the wrong way. We were trying to be efficient and more from a manufacturing sensibility. When you think about the most efficient customer service models, the Amazon-types of things, they’re very centralized, very automated.

But because of the bespoke nature of our product, you need a bespoke type of service. That means we know you well enough to know that you have a lot of specialized prescriptions, and that you’re going to have specialized needs, and we need to make sure that I call you to talk through the prescriptions. That’s where the intimacy comes in.

In an attempt to balance that need for delivering intimate customer service while maintaining the efficiency of a large lab network, we went to this ‘pod’ approach. The way I like to simplistically put it, is the routing of the job and the movement between labs is our business. But the service we try to provide to our doctors is that they are likely to talk to the same customer service person every time. We’re trying to provide the intimacy of a single, private independent lab but with the infrastructure and diversity and ability to do the jobs that the Essilor lab network is capable of.

VM: What kinds of training and protocols did Essilor put in place to achieve customer intimacy?

SJ: We’re using technology so that we can minimize the number of specialists that are assigned to a lab. That was one of the first changes we made going to this pod model. We have a consistent and rigorous training process for all our customer service reps, many of whom are ABO-certified. Because of the dynamic nature of the demand due to the pandemic, we had people out for a decent period of time. To make sure that we didn’t just bring them back onto the phones right away, we made them go through the training again and helped them to remember all the basic protocols for how to deal with customers. We’ve always had this in place, but we’ve had to really lean into it recently.

One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that many of customer service reps are ABO-certified. Some of them are opticians with rich experience. That really helps. If you have a wrap frame, you have certain prescriptions that can fit in it. Or if you have a certain frame and have a high index, it really helps to have an optical expert on the phone to help you figure it out.

VM: How does the pod concept work, and how many Essilor labs are operating under this customer service model?

SJ: You have pods that service a group of labs. If I go to the extreme of intimacy… which is problematic with our extensive lab network, every single lab would have its own set of customer service reps. The other extreme, you have an Amazon-like system in which, one centralized customer service, you route to a foreign country and you don’t know who you’re getting.

The pod is in the middle, but it is more skewed toward intimacy. You have a group of people who service multiple labs. If you happen to have a lot of call volume, instead of going to an unknown rep, you might get Sally instead Mary. She’ll still be familiar with your practice.

We’ve also added a role of ‘lab liaison.’ They’re runners who move around the lab to figure out where the jobs are. The lab liaison will give the customer service rep a good idea of just where the job is. That way, they can ensure that the customer service is seamless. There are about 70 Essilor labs operating under this customer service model.

Another thing is that we use a service that allows us to constantly monitor the customer calls. We’re always listening and recording the calls. The customer service rep has to rate the call and then calibrate themselves against how they’re being rated by the customer. If for some reason you don’t have good rating, you listen and get trained so you can improve.